Scalding Hot Takes: The Incredibles 2
In the eighteen years that I made my living primarily as a film critic, first for The A.V Club and then for the short-lived, much-loved Pitchfork film site The Dissolve there were no almost no certainties with the exception of Pixar.
Pixar was, and continues to be, the gold standard for computer animation. In a corrupt and degraded world there’s something pure about Pixar. There’s not a whole lot you can say that about otherwise. Sesame Street. Mr. Rogers. Paul Rudd. That’s about it. That’s why the allegations of impropriety against John Lasseter were so disturbing. Christ, isn’t anything sacred? Pixar wasn't just another movie company. Pixar means something. It stands for something. It matters.
When I was a film critic, the Pixar logo was the mark of quality. Then came Cars, which was a disappointment compared to the timeless masterpieces that preceded and followed it, and then Cars 2, which was a disappointment by any conceivable standard. As a grouchy, fatherless full time film critic, I groused and wondered why on Earth Pixar would make a sequel to their weakest and worst-reviewed film.
As a 42 year old father of a three and a half year old boy, my perspective is a little different. Now I wonder why Pixar doesn’t shit out a Cars movie every month. Don’t they like money, or does the prospect of making literally billions in merchandising not appeal to them?
I haven’t been a film critic for a couple of years now, so I have perhaps not surprisingly not seen a Pixar movie in a hot minute. Even the best aspects of my old profession carry an unmistakable undercurrent of pain and rejection, and getting to see a new Pixar movie was unmistakably one of the very best parts of my former life.
I was reminded all over again about why I fell deeply in love with the magic of Pixar watching The Incredibles 2, the long-in-the-works sequel to 2004’s Brad Bird’s Oscar-winning masterpiece. To borrow a phrase from the great podcaster and dreamer Jamie Flam, the enchantment began even before The Incredibles 2’s first frame.
The movie was preceded by an animated short. That alone helped establish that a new Pixar release is not just another movie: it’s a goddamned event. I don’t want to give too much away, but the short accompanying The Incredibles 2 is a heartbreaking tearjerker about love, connection, aging, mortality, loss, loneliness and steamed dumplings.
It’s almost as if Pixar is sadistically illustrating that they can make audiences cry over just about anything, including sad robots in a dystopian future and the heartbreak of watching the sentient steamed dumpling that you’ve lovingly raised from birth grow and mature in ways that sometimes break your heart.
Metaphorically speaking, the lovely, elegant miniature masterpiece before The Incredibles 2 is all about the joys and pain of fatherhood. That makes it the perfect prelude to a movie that’s equally about the crime fighting adventures of a family of superheroes and a good-hearted, well-intentioned but overwhelmed dad’s efforts to look after his children by himself while his wife is out fighting evildoers and making the world safe for superheroes again.
The extraordinary sustained success Pixar has experienced over the past two and half decades has empowered them to take the kind of huge creative chances most studios wouldn’t even contemplate. Wall-E famously went a half hour without dialogue. Up opened by breaking all of our fragile hearts by reminding us of the inevitability of death and the horrors of mortality and aging through a rightly revered montage sequence taking us through every stage of a couple’s relationship, up to and including the wife’s death.
The Incredibles 2 is similarly audacious and gutsy, albeit in more of a subtle, low-key kind of way. In a deafeningly loud, defiantly juvenile superhero world, writer-director Brad Bird is refreshingly unafraid to be quiet and grown-up. This is a computer-animated movie about larger than life heroes that seems most comfortable when its character are having meaty, substantive conversations, both about the nature of power and responsibility, and about their surprisingly complicated internal lives.
Watching the film graciously handle the complicated emotions of family life I was reminded that before Brad Bird was the king of cinematic animation with instant classics like The Iron Giant, The Incredibles and Ratatouille he was a key figure in The Simpsons' golden age, when the show balanced a scathingly satirical, take-no-prisoners take on the excesses and idiocies of American culture with a rich, nuanced depiction of the emotions of a struggling but loving working-class brood.
The Incredibles 2 inhabits a world where superheroes have been outlawed for the greater public good. The Incredibles are out of action and on the sidelines until one day they’re approached by Winston Deaver (a perfectly cast Bob Odenkirk), a second-generation superhero super-fan with an ambitious plan to get the public to embrace superheroes again. With the help of brilliant inventor sister Evelyn (an even more perfectly cast Catherine Keener), Winston wants to essentially re-launch the Incredibles by giving Elastigirl/Violet Parr (Holly Hunter) a new costume and a new look and making her the reassuring, eminently capable face of not just the Incredibles but superheroes as a whole.
The family acquiesces out of a combination of optimism and desperation and gets cushy new digs from their wealthy new benefactors but that leaves Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) in the unfamiliar position of having to look after angst-ridden teen daughter Violet (Sarah Vowell), speedy son Dash (Huck Milner) and baby Jack Jack.
The life of a parent is filled with unforeseen variables. In the anything can happen world of superheroes, that includes discovering that your progeny’s powers are vaster, broader and more powerful than you can possibly imagine and include turning into a demon baby when frustrated. Jack Jack is fucking adorable. Super fucking adorable. He charmed the fuck out of me. I don’t give a mad ass fuck if you want to judge me for enjoying cute shit. Jack Jack is golden retriever puppy-like in his irresistibility, a big-eyed ball of infinite possibilities and raw power.
The Incredibles 2 takes place right after the events of the 2004 original yet like Toy Story 3 it has a tremendously lived-in, rich quality partially attributable to Brad Bird and Pixar’s genius for world-building and partially attributable to the passage of time between the rapturously received first film and its sequel.
I’ve gotten very stingy with my time in my old age, if only because this site represents such an insane time investment that time management has become a matter of utmost importance, so I was not overjoyed to see the movie ran over two hours. Not surprisingly, Brad Bird makes brilliant use of the film’s healthy runtime.
Bird takes him time here, opening on a down note, with the Incredibles still struggling to reconcile their remarkable, super-human gifts with their all-too-human personal lives and a world that views them with suspicion and skepticism, if not outright disdain. There’s a real sense of sadness and loss to the early scenes as well as a fragile sense of hope that good will prevail.
When The Incredibles came out it possessed an element of novelty time has aggressively erased. In 2004, Iron Man was still four years away, and with it the Marvel superhero movie boom that has pretty much swallowed up not just seemingly the sum of commercial cinema but pop culture as a whole. We were not yet overwhelmed by a never-ending avalanche about meta-humans in spiffy costumes either wise-cracking or brooding their way through adventures that separately and collectively formed vast interconnected universes connected to either Marvel or D.C.
The notion of a movie about a superhero family still seemed fresh. These days, many of the top superhero sagas are very explicitly rooted in complicated family dynamics. Black Panther is fundamentally a family saga, as is Thor’s mythology. Hell, Thor’s not even the most popular member of his own damn family.
The crucial difference is that the family sagas of Black Panther and Thor are epic and outsized in nature. Thor and his family are literally Norse Gods but the Incredibles are refreshingly and relatable life-sized, a typical American nuclear family except for that whole part about everyone in it having superhuman powers.
This might seem like a curious form of praise for a visually dynamic two hundred superhero movie but The Incredibles 2 reminded me a lot of our current Golden Age of television. It’s a film about action, and adventure and derring-do but a lot of my favorite moments in it consist of characters talking. There is a richness and an emotional depth to The Incredibles series that sets it apart from other superhero movies, a sense that these characters had full, complicated lives before the events chronicled in the movie, and will continue to lead fascinating, eventful existences after the credits roll.
The Incredibles is epic and intimate, full of dazzlingly staged set-pieces but also philosophically charged exchanges and raw emotion.
In Brad Bird’s eminently capable hands, great power and great responsibility lead to great humanity and also enduring, timeless greatness.
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